Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wanna Chat with Foreign Beauties? How to Make Friends with a Foreigner Part 3: Questions and Comments

This is part 3 of a series on forming friendships between Koreans and expats. It sure isn't the final word on the subject, but maybe it's a start.

In some kind of search for balance, because I can only represent the expat's side of the equation, I asked a few of my "Korean Korean" readers to contribute some advice and insights from the other side. Those posts will alternate with these ones, in an effort to redress the imbalance. Here we go...

Tip 10: Be different. Almost every time a Korean approaches me to start a conversation, they start off with the same questions:

Where are you from? How long have you been in Korea? Can you speak Korean? Are you married? Why did you come to Korea? Do you like Korean food? What's your job? ... and so on. Honestly, it gets boring answering the same questions every time... which means that if you ask all the same questions as everybody else asks me in the first five minutes after you meet me, my first impression will be that you're terribly boring: a bad start for a friendship.

Repetitiveness is bad. And sometimes frightening. (gif from here)

Most of the common questions are perfectly good ones, so feel free to ask them later in the conversation, but not all at once right after you meet me, OK? If you ask more interesting, and more varied questions, I'll be more interested in talking to you again.

Tip 10.1 Here are some questions that are too personal for the first five minutes after you meet someone. Save them for later, if you ask them at all.

How old are you? How tall are you? Is your hair naturally blonde/curly/red? (How would you feel if I asked, “Are your eyelids are real or surgical?”) "Tell me about your family" is always better than "Are you married?"

Tip 10.2 These comments are strange or uncomfortable in my culture:

Any comment about someone's personal appearance, even positive things, too early in a conversation. "You are very handsome" or "You are very beautiful" is a strange thing to say to a person right after you meet them: it sounds like a pretty strong come-on. It is especially uncommon for men to compliment another man's looks in North America.

"You have a small face" and "Your skin is so pale!" -- these are not considered compliments to me. Nobody pays attention to big or small faces where I’m from, and "You have pale skin," to many white people, is like saying, "You're looking a bit sick."

"Your skin is pale" makes most white folks think of something like this: (source)
not something like this:

"You have nice eyes" is better than "you have big eyes".

"You look like (famous western person)." This one reminds us of that stereotyped and racist saying "they all look the same to me" -- especially when every curly-haired man looks like Tom Hanks, every blonde woman looks like Nicole Kidman, and every bald man looks like Bruce Willis. Don't say this one unless I really, really, really do look like the person. Imagine traveling in Europe and having people tell you that you look like Jackie Chan or Lucy Liu. Again and again and again.

Tip 10.3 Just Annoying:

"Are you from America?" (non-Americans HATE when people assume they're American. Imagine if everybody said "Konichiwa" to you during your tour of Europe.) "Where are you from?" is better.

"What do you think about Korean women/men?" (basically means: "I want you to flatter the people of my country.")

"Can you eat spicy food?" (unless we're about to order a meal together, this one is strange, especially because the stereotype that foreigners can't eat spicy food isn't always true.)

Not. Always. True.

Tip 10.5 Very rude in our culture:
Any comment about somebody's weight, any negative comment about someone's looks.

I've heard so many expats in Korea complain about well-meaning people saying things like "Are you sick? You look really terrible!" Once I was giving level tests at my adult language school, and the first words the student said when he sat down for the interview were "you look terrible!" He wanted to show concern, or interest in me. Instead, he offended me, and made me immediately dislike him. Just sincerely ask "How are you doing" or "You don't seem everything ok?"

One last thing: if you ask "Is your girlfriend Korean?" and your tone sounds like you don't care if she is or not, I don't mind answering, but if you make the question into a big deal, I wonder why you care about it: you're talking to ME, not her, and if interracial dating is a big deal to you, I start thinking you might be a little bit racist.

OK! I hope that was fun for you. Have a great day, and stay tuned for part 4!

Back to the table of contents.


Alex said...

Speaking of body comments:
Saying I have a very nice body 'perfect 's' curve' is very creepy. Especially if you are a coworker.

Sarie said...

Nice blog. Just came across it for the first time.

Irreverent Italy said...

Great post! Although, I think any comment "You have nice eyes" isn't such a great pickup line...

I thought you & your fellow teachers/students might get a kick out of posting their foreign language mishaps on our blog:


조안나 said...

I am really sick of those same 5 questions. I'm a professional at answering them in Korean too, and it makes my Korean look extremely good when I can answer these questions without hesitation. It doesn't mean my Korean is that good. It just means that I've answered these questions about 10 times/ week for the past year and a half and it no longer requires thought.

I am also sick of people asking me if I'm tired. I'm probably, on most days, not tired, I just must have some natural bags under my eyes or something. I get the "you look so tired!" or " you look like you're catching something!" all the time. It makes me self conscious...

Hyeon said...

Really nice blog lol
I couldn't stop laughing while reading this blog.
Good job!

Unknown said...

Is it that Koreans have a hard time meeting foreigners or is it that have a hard time meeting new people(even Koreans) at all?
It seems that Koreans have a hard time introducing themselves to other Koreans that they don't know.
When I was teaching adults at ELS in the 90's here, the biggest problem wasn't the English, it was trying to get the students to get to know each other. Once that was done, then the atmosphere was easier since everyone knew each other.
While taking martial arts here for some time, when a new student began class, they has to introduce themselves to the entire class. You could see how nervous they. Their introductions were their name, age job or university.
I think that the difficulty lies in the part where they do not how to deal with social situations that they don't know anyone at.
It seems more a question of how to talk to someone in a social situation that they don't know rather than just trying to talk to a foreigner. When they deal with a foreigner they also have to deal with the language problem.
But if the Korean meets a foreigner who can speak decent Korean, can the Korean still establish and maintain a conversation?

Also, usually when people refer to Koreans, I wonder if they mean the entire country or just the people in Seoul? When I visit Pusan for the film festival I tend to talk to more Koreans there than in Seoul. During my time in Korea I would venture to say that the friendly Koreans were no from Seoul.

Just a few ideas to mix in the pot.

Roboseyo said...

Thanks for those, BK. Good food for thought in there.

Marc Hogi said...

Rob, love this whole series. As far as the personal questions thing, I like to have fun with it. If people ask the typical questions about marriage, hometown, and so on, most of the time I'll indulge them (my salary is the one area that's off limits) but I'll return the same questions...for example, "So, how about you? Are YOU married?" The reactions range from surprise to defensiveness to embarrassment.

The girlfriend question is particularly interesting; I'm an African-American, but to my surprise many people have asked me; "How about a Korean girlfriend?" My response to this varies depending on the situation and on the person (good friend vs. meeting for the first time), but recently one of my favorites has become this: "I have no problem with marrying a Korean, but I'm worried about her parents because realistically, for a lot of Korean parents, giving away their daughter to a 흑인 사람 (black person) is a nightmare."

I can also give this response in Korean. I deliver it not accusingly, but firmly, and it usually ends the conversation.

Sometimes (perhaps because I've been here so long) I'll actually beat a person to it and ask them the age and marriage questions before they ask me.